Optimism In The Face Of Disaster
March 3, 2013

After The Tornado, Optimism Could Undermine Future Emergency Preparedness

Alan McStravick for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online

In recent years, we have seen a severe uptick in the frequency and strength of tornadoes that strike from the south through the Midwest of the United States. In April of 2011, a month that regularly records an average of 161 tornadoes, a record 758 tornadoes were documented.

A new study out of the University of Iowa wanted to explore how residents, caught in the direct path of a previous tornado, viewed their chances of possible injury in the face of a future tornado. What Jerry Suls, lead author and psychologist at the university, learned was these residents expressed a feeling of optimism regarding their own chances of possible injury. They believed their own risk of injury from a future tornado was lower than that of peers, both a month and a year after the storm event. Suls and other experts believe this optimism could actually work on a negative corollary regarding future emergency preparedness.

The study was born after an F-2 tornado had struck the town Suls, himself, lived in. Suls, who studies social comparison, turned his attention to risk perception among his fellow residents. “I had dinner as a guest in a home that was destroyed by the tornado the next evening,” he says. “It was hard not to think about future weather disasters while helping with the clean-up in the following weeks.”

In order to measure their results, Suls and his team developed a survey which they administered to three different populations in the town. The goal was to understand their perception as it pertained to risk from future tornadoes. The three populations, consisting of college students, local residents whom they contacted through random-digit dialing, and residents in neighborhoods directly affected by the damaging tornado, were surveyed over a period of one year. They were questioned about both “absolute” and comparative risk.

"Although risk can be framed in absolute terms, for example, a 1 in 100 chance of being injured in an automobile accident, people are particularly interested in their risk relative to other people," he says. Comparative questions included "How likely is it you will be injured by a tornado in the next 10 years, compared with the average Iowan (-2 = much less likely to +2 much = more likely)?"; questions of absolute risk included "How likely, from a statistical or scientific point of view, is it you would experience a tornado injury in the next ten years (0% to 100%)?"

Suls and his colleagues published their study, titled “Optimism Following a Tornado Disaster”, in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. They found students and residents of the community typically reported feeling less vulnerable than their peers at month 1, month 6 and year 1 after the tornado. The absolute risk estimates seemed to increase in optimism over time. Perhaps most intriguing for the team was the realization that residents who lived in the neighborhoods directly affected by the storm tended to feel more optimistic through month 6 than residents who lived in areas of the town that had little to no visible damage from the storm. These residents were faced with the daunting task of repairing damaged windows, roofs, automobiles, etc.

"We speculate that for a while, they felt 'lightning wouldn't strike twice in the same place,'" Suls says. "A year later, their optimism was comparable to the people in the undamaged neighborhoods."

While survey respondents reported an increased sense of optimism, with regard to their chances of future injury from a storm event, the research team points out that their objective numerical estimates tended to be fairly pessimistic when compared with estimates weather storm experts have predicted. Post-storm, the residents felt their chance of injury fell at about a 1-in-10 chance, or 10 percent likelihood, they might be subjected to another direct hit from a large tornado event. Weather storm experts present what they claim is a scientifically calculated risk of less than 1 in 100, or under a 1 percent chance, these residents would experience another storm like the one they had survived.

"People tend to maintain an optimistic view, particularly with regard to their fate compared to other people," Suls says. "Even the proximity of a significant weather disaster seems to do little to shake that optimism." While this may seem counterintuitive, he explains, it is the norm, and may help explain why some people are so reticent to seek shelter during natural disasters.

Suls contends there may be a strong possibility that residents who must live for an extended period of time among the remnants of the disaster may experience and increased defensiveness and perhaps even denial about risks associated from future storms. This was most definitely the case for the Iowan residents of his town for a full two years following the storm. Suls states, with weather disasters increasing in frequency in recent years, it is highly possible there may be a cumulative effect on residents´ optimism and feelings of vulnerability. Suls and colleagues claim they must conduct further research to examine how the lowered-risk attitudes of residents, post-storm, might influence emergency preparedness initiatives.